November 21, 2012 10:14:00 AM
FULTON -- A few months ago, Nicole Harmon was cooking fast food at a Texaco gas station. Now she's learning to sew couch cushions at the Max Home furniture factory.
After thousands of layoffs in northeastern Mississippi's furniture industry, some of the remaining companies are hiring. And the state is subsidizing that hiring with tax credits and training money that may run into the millions of dollars.
Considering that Mississippi lost more than 40 percent of all furniture jobs in the last decade, such spending may seem like a bad investment. But industry leaders say they're going to survive. They say Harmon isn't being trained for a dead-end job, but one with a future.
Certainly, Max Home appears to be thriving. As Chief Operations Officer Bruno Policicchio walked through the firm's cut-and-sew plant in Fulton last month, workers were laying down boards to create another table to cut fabric for sofas and chairs. The firm, which has 550 workers across three plants in Fulton and one in Iuka, makes upholstered furniture sold by retailers including Macy's, the Pottery Barn unit of Willams-Sonoma and Haverty Furniture Cos.
The firm has steadily expanded over the past seven years, breathing new life into shuttered factories. Policicchio said his company is committed to domestic manufacturing because it gives Max Home better quality control and helps it react quickly to changing fashions. That's because furniture, like clothing, is a fashion business.
"We've never made anything in China. We've always made everything here. A lot of people thought that we were crazy," Policicchio said. "We decided we may never get big being domestic, but we can truly control our price, truly control our delivery."
However, many other companies have turned to China for cutting and sewing, bringing in fabric kits for sofas and chairs assembled in the United States.
Companies following the Chinese route kept some of the cutters and sewers to repair damaged kits, one reason that domestic advocates disparage China. Still, layoffs were heavy among cutters, who trim fabric using automated machines or by guiding an electric knife by hand. Job losses were also heavy among sewing machine operators, who stitch together fabric pieces into cushions or backs.
Now, though, companies that are rebounding are having trouble finding help.
"We're training cutters; we're training upholsterers; we're training sewers," Policicchio said. "You'll have some straight out of school. We can teach a skill, we can't teach an attitude."
Max Home has hired some experienced people, such as Linda West of Fairview, who was close to completing months of training in October.
"It took me a while to get back into it," she said. "I'm running like 85 percent, which is a big improvement over when I started, when I was running like 20 percent."
But most new workers, like Harmon, have never made furniture before.
Harmon at least had home economics in high school. Many potential employees don't have even home sewing experience, said James Williams, vice president of economic and community services at Itawamba Community College in northeastern Mississippi.
"That's a skill that's disappearing," he said. The college is seeking grant money to buy sewing machines to train potential employees.
That would add to the assistance that furniture makers get from Mississippi. Earlier this year, the Legislature extended through 2017 a $2,000-a-job tax credit for every new cut-and-sew worker who's hired. The state Department of Revenue doesn't know how many of those credits have been claimed.
Ken Pruett of the Mississippi Furniture Association estimates 1,500 cut-and-sew jobs have been added since the credit was established in 2010, out of 4,000 new hires industry-wide. Others say those figures sound high, but it's clear hundreds of cut-and-sew jobs have been added.
For all companies, not just furniture makers, Mississippi will pay for a trainer if a company creates a training line. It will pay up to half an employee's salary during on-the-job training, an amount Williams said is usually worth about $1,500. State employees will also teach safety, quality and efficiency classes for a manufacturer.
Community colleges also offer what they call counseling-to-career training. People 21 or younger who are out of school get career counseling and help with organizational and communication skills, leading to a paid internship. Jera Nash of Smithville, 29 days into her time on the bedlam-like upholstery line in October, took such classes at Itawamba Community College.
"My mother had worked in a furniture factory," Nash said. "She told me 100 times that it's hard work, but it's worth it."
Policicchio said upholstery jobs like Nash's are among the company's highest skilled. Workers there and elsewhere get a base wage plus production incentives. Upholsterers can make $18 an hour at Max Home, Policicchio said. Noting how workers must stretch different grades of fabric and square up corners, he said it's a job that can't be automated.
"A robot can't do this," Policicchio said. "They just can't. Period."
But a foreign worker can, and manufacturers continue to look over their shoulders, even as an improving housing market should lift furniture demand. Max Home's strategy is not to be the cheapest, but instead aim for consumers who want better quality.
Bill Martin, director of the Franklin Furniture Institute at Mississippi State University, said much of Mississippi's furniture industry has aimed for a "promotional" market, a polite word for cheap. One strategy today is to move up the price ladder a few rungs -- "get out of the dirt, if you will," he said.
The institute found last year that northeastern Mississippi manufacturers supplied 31 percent of all upholstered furniture sold in the United States, despite recent closings and cutbacks. The industry was responsible for $2.1 billion of Mississippi's $84.3 billion in economic output, the institute estimated. Considering that many Mississippians don't have a college education, Martin said it's appropriate for the state to train workers for the industry.
"Not everyone is qualified to do high-skill, high-tech jobs," Martin said. "There's still going to be a need for low-skilled, highly labor intensive jobs."
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